Experience Leads Villanova to 71-61 Win Over Ohio State, Sweet 16 Berth


Courtesy of Olivia Pasquale/Villanovan Photography

Graduates Jermaine Samuels and Collin Gillespie and senior Brandon Slater have been here before, leading the ‘Cats to a 71-61 victory.

Colin Beazley, Co-Editor-in-Chief

PITTSBURGH 一 Collin Gillespie had been here before. 

This wasn’t the first time Gillespie had experienced an NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh, as the ‘Cats’ path to their 2018 National Championship began in the PPG Paints Arena. 

Nor was this the first time Gillespie and his Villanova squad had gotten off to a hot start, as the graduate guard had held a personal 10-7 lead against Ohio State just minutes into the game. 

Gillespie and Villanova had seen many a lead evaporate, too: the ‘Cats led by 15 before the Buckeyes, behind a barrage from true freshman Malaki Branham, came roaring back to within two. Although you can’t expect your grasp on a game to slip, for the opponent to catch fire and gain all the momentum, the Wildcats sure didn’t look fazed with their season on the line and all trends pointing in the Buckeyes’ favor.

In the end, Gillespie and the ‘Cats had been here before. The Buckeyes hadn’t. It made all the difference.

When the Buckeyes pulled within two with 5:39 remaining, the Wildcats trusted their experience and let their leader do what he does, putting the ball in Gillespie’s hands and letting the guard who’s seen it all before go to work on the way to a 71-61 victory.

“He’s the decision-maker out there,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “We will call the play for him to be the decision-maker and he will determine who gets the shot. Kind of like a quarterback running a two-minute drill, [he’s] going to pick who is open. That’s what he (did) a great job of.”

Branham was the key man in the Ohio State rally, often looking like the best player on the court throughout the second half. Branham, a projected first-round pick should he decide to declare for the 2022 NBA Draft, scored 15 points in the half, adding two assists. However, Branham was held to two points in the final five minutes, missing three of the four shots he attempted.

The Buckeyes as a team were held to just three points in the final five minutes, while Gillespie and fellow fifth year forward Jermaine Samuels scored four points each to clinch the victory. While it was Gillespie who wrenched control of the game from Branham, it was redshirt sophomore Eric Dixon with the dagger, hitting a wide open three with 1:38 remaining to extend the Villanova lead to eight.

“I think they have the confidence, ‘if Collin is giving it to me, that’s telling me go ahead and shoot it,’” Wright said of Dixon’s shot. “He had other options. I give him a lot of credit, man, that’s guts.”

The game was a clear contrast in roster-building. Ohio State was led by Branham and fellow projected first rounder, junior forward EJ Liddell, and the two combined for 40 of the Buckeyes’ 61 points. However, no other Buckeye scored more than six. The Wildcats’ scoring was a team effort, as Gillespie led the way with 20, but Dixon, Samuels and redshirt senior guard Caleb Daniels were in double figures as well.

“We have been searching for that third and fourth guy,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. “We have been kinda searching for that, and we have missed that third, fourth and sometimes fifth option.”

Branham was outstanding, single-handedly dragging the Buckeyes back into the game, but the 18-year-old was unable to take the game over in the final minutes, something that Gillespie makes routine.

“We never expected this,” Wright said. “All of the intangibles that (Gillespie) brings, we expected. To be able to go out and dominate games like he does, we did not.”

Gillespie started the game hot, going on an 8-0 run by himself to turn a two point Villanova lead into a game the Wildcats controlled. The Wildcats led by 11 at halftime, extending it to 15 just minutes into the second half and looking well on their way to dispatching of No.7 Ohio State just as they’d cruised past No.15 Delaware two days prior. But Branham refused to go quietly.

“Malaki Branham is a handful,” Wright said. “We struggled with him.”

In the final minutes, Wright’s team had seen it before, prepared and comfortable even with their tournament lives on the line.

“When you’re playing great teams in big-time atmospheres like this, there is a lot of pressure there,” Wright said. “When that team makes the run, if you haven’t been there before and know that you can withstand that, that this is what happens when you play great. … If you haven’t done it, it’s hard, you can panic. But all these guys have been there.”

Next up for the Wildcats is another scene straight out of 2018, as the Wildcats next travel to San Antonio, the scene of that season’s National Championship. Although the arena and round is different, with the second weekend being held in the AT&T Center instead of 2018’s Final Four in the Alamodome, the matchup is the same, as Villanova will once again face the Michigan Wolverines.

“I didn’t think about [the parallel],” Samuels said. “It’s cool it’s in San Antonio, but [it’s just] great to be in the Sweet 16.”